Cleaning up the Cuyahoga

The following is an article that appeared in the October 8, 2004 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer from reporter John Kuehner. The article was originally titled, "Cuyahoga River's fans begin to see hope."

By John C. Kuener

Improvements spark plans to get polluted waterway off list

It was once unthinkable: Getting the Cuyahoga River removed from an international list of the most-polluted sites on the Great Lakes.

Now it looks possible, thanks to cleanup efforts and years of the Cuyahoga's continuous improvement.

Over the past three decades, a number of changes have occurred along the heavily polluted industrial and urban portion of the river.

Discharges from municipal wastewater plants and industrial plants have been cleaned up, causing a rebirth in the variety and number of fish and bugs. An Ohio Environmental Protection Agency study four years ago found 62 species of fish in the river where there were none nearly 30 years earlier.

In addition, several river areas between Akron and Cleveland - once the most- polluted portion of the Cuyahoga - have met some or all of the goals set by the federal Clean Water Act.

"Twenty-five years ago, I would never have dreamt it would look as good as it does, or that people would rent $2,500 apartments to have views of it," said Mark Moloney, an environmental engineer with the U.S. EPA's Cleveland office.

"That would have been unthinkable in 1975," Moloney said.

The Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan, a local group dedicated to cleaning up the river, has made it a goal to have the Cuyahoga removed from the list.

Area environmental planners admit, though, that a complete cleanup of the river is a long way off - at least 20 years away. But they want to see the improvements continue by taking a more regional approach with communities along the river and its tributaries between Akron and Cleveland.

"There's no reason why it shouldn't be our goal," said Jim White, the group's executive director. "Everything we do should be aimed at restoring the river and put it into a level of recovery."

Since 1988, the Cuyahoga and 10 miles of Cleveland's shoreline on Lake Erie have been one of 43 sites on the Great Lakes designated by the United States and Canada as areas of concern because of their major pollution problems. Three other Ohio waterways - the Maumee River in Toledo, the Ashtabula River in Ashtabula and the Black River in Lorain County - are on the list.

Of those waterways, two Canadian ones have been cleaned up. Only one American site, Presque Isle in Erie, Pa., has improved enough to be considered in "recovery," a designation that means it is better but scientists are continuing to monitor it.

Under an international agreement between Canada and the United States, the governments set 14 good traits that a body of water must meet before it can be removed as an "area of concern."

The criteria the Cuyahoga does meet include no restrictions on drinking water, no bird and animal deformities and reproduction problems and no restrictions on agricultural use of water.

But the river fails to meet 10 other goals. Among them, it has a significant loss of fish and wildlife habitat because of dredging and development, and there are restrictions on fish consumption. Also Edgewater and Villa Angela, two public beaches along Lake Erie, consistently have high bacteria levels that lead to health advisories.

Before the river can be completely cleaned up, some longer-term problems need to be solved. Among them, eliminating the combined sewage and rainwater discharges into the river. The city of Akron and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District are planning to spend more than $1.3 billion to correct the discharge problem, but that will take at least 20 years.

The biggest pollution problems facing the Cuyahoga are chemicals, oils and other debris that wash off parking lots, yards and roads during rainstorms. Those pollutants go into nearby storm drains and creeks, and eventually wind up in Lake Erie.

"There are issues out there that will be with us a long time that are difficult and complicated to solve," said Tom Denbow, Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan chairman. "But even a partial delisting will be a victory."

Still, the Cuyahoga is moving in the right direction and the idea of removing the river from the "worst-of-the-worst" list is possible, said the EPA's Moloney.

Over the next year, environmental planners want to look at problems on a tributary-by-tributary basis and identify what cleanup needs to be done in each small segment to remove the Cuyahoga from the list.

They say it also will take the more than 30 communities in the Cuyahoga River watershed including Cleveland, Brecksville, Parma, Cuyahoga Falls and Bath Township working to adopt municipal ordinances to protect the river and its tributaries.

To get community support, planners are pushing the economic benefits of an improved river, such as recreation and redevelopment.

"There's this lingering reputation about the Cuyahoga that still exists that is unwarranted," White said. "By pushing the delisting effort, we will broaden our recovery reputation along. It will also help push us to work together."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-5325

© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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"Twenty-five years ago, I would never have dreamt it would look as good as it does, or that people would rent $2,500 apartments to have views of it." -Mark Moloney, an environmental engineer with the U.S. EPA's Cleveland office.



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